We’re back! Returning for a fifth series, Merlin came back with a typically well-produced, written and acted episode, which saw a new gloss of backstory and continuity introduced into the show. Merlin has gone through a surprisingly high amount of mythology during the past few years, to the point now where viewers will see not only a King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, but also now a Round Table, almost all of the Knights, an evil Morgana, friendly dragon and vengeful Mordred show up within the space of 40 minutes. And these are all elements which were slowly built up over a number of years! Masterfully, the show jumbled up all these concepts one after another, to create a stirring, frantically entertaining opening episode.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Merlin as a show. Starting off as the adventures of the Prince Arthur and his magic-wielding servant Merlin, the programme has quickly spun off into one of the most involving shows of the past few years. Characters have been killed off, the status quo challenged, and the story developed, with only the barest of missteps along the way. Colin Morgan and Bradley James, as Merlin and Arthur respectively, have grown into their roles brilliantly over the years, to the point where they can sustain an episode just through bickering at length for hours on end.
This opening episode takes us three years into Arthur’s new reign as the King of Camelot, establishing all the characters very briefly before sending them off on another quest. In many ways this is the sort of thing the show has done several times before, with the Knights heading off into a dangerous territory to fight off some vague threat. But what we haven’t seen before is a proper look at the life in court. Typically when the main cast were off questing, the show would fill the other half of its time with the villains, modifying their goals or having them manipulate Uther (RIP). Now we have Guinevere as Queen, the show evidently sees the benefit of spending time with her, developing her as a smart leader.
Any other show would have spent a season with the "mole" angle to the new adorable she’s so pretty call me maybe serving girl Sefa (Sophie Rundle), but having Guinevere strike straight to the point and catch her immediately was an admirable move. It sets Sefa up to be more than a one-dimensional role, but it also gives weight to Angel Coulby’s Gwen. In the post-Uther era, strengthening the role of court and Gwen is a smart move for the show to make, giving it a third storyline to play around with whenever they need to string out the Arthur/Merlin or villain sequences.
The rapport between the two main characters remains the main draw for the show (apart from the recurrent male nudity – enjoy!), and this episode didn’t disappoint in that regard. The banter was as on-point and funny as ever, with some great comedic set pieces involving juggling and rabbits. The show always seems to fly by whenever these two are working off each other, and the new rise of Arthur the Caring is an interesting move. It makes the character smarter, working off his innate decency in a way which makes him more similar to the iconic Arthur figure in literature. Likewise, it makes Merlin into a stronger character, as he has a worthier foil to work off – somebody who can actually teach him something directly. The character work on the show is strong all-round in this episode, in fact, with everybody given something to do.
Katie McGrath didn’t get to do her patented “glare malevolently at the camera while hugging somebody” move, which is always a shame, but Morgana continues to be a fun villainess for the show. And the diversions into other past continuity – Lindsay Duncan’s appearance, the return of Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) – seems to be setting the pieces up for a strong season. This was a characteristically strong episode of a show which has grown year on year, with fun performances and an exciting story. The writers seem to be preparing for their eventual endgame (will we see the Grail show up this series?) and they look to be doing it while they’re still on top. If you’re not watching Merlin, now’s the time to get on-board.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He's on Team X-Men, you guys.